Place strategy

Right Place, Right Time: How Alex Bowman Won Las Vegas

After coming from behind, spinning during the race and hitting the wall another time in his spare car, Kyle Busch was poised to win Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Then a late warning sent the race into overtime. What happened next ended Busch’s hopes of winning a Cup race for an 18th straight season, which would tie Richard Petty for the longest streak in NASCAR history.

Frustrated, Busch unleashed a torrent of swearing after watching Alex Bowman win another race with late stageds.

“The same (expletive) guy who backs every (expletive) win he ever (expletive) gets, comes back in another (expletive) win. (Expletive)! (Expletive)!”

But did Bowman, who rallied after a pit road penalty on lap 136 of the 274-lap race, really come back in that win?

Yes, pit strategy played into Bowman’s hands, but either team could have made the same decision.

As the warning went out to send the race into overtime, team manager Greg Ives thought back to that race two years ago. Bowman was second when the warning came out in the closing laps. He was among those who pitted, but a few cars didn’t pit. Bowman was pushed back after the restart and finished 13th.

“I’ve been prepped since 2020 for this one,” Ives said, alluding to what he called a “bad call.”

This time, Bowman was fourth when the warning last came out, behind Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Ross Chastain.

A lot of the field had run at least 47 laps on their set of tires (Bowman had run 48 laps) so everyone was going to get tires. While the natural decision was to take four tyres, Ives knew that teammate Kyle Larson, who entered sixth on pit road, would likely only take two tyres.

After winning last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels could bet on a two-tire stop. So, Ives figured he could only afford to take two tires to try and secure a front-row starting spot.

Brad Keselowski only picked up two tires on a warning on lap 83 and started in the front row. Everyone behind him took four tires, but Keselowski took the lead and held it for three laps. The overtime restart would only be two rounds.

But it wasn’t just Bowman and Larson who took two tires. His teammate William Byron took two tires. Ives said it was not a coordinated effort by the Hendrick crew chiefs to take two tires; it just worked like that.

Busch was therefore the first car to come out of pit road with four tyres.

Next is the path the leaders will take for the restart. Larson took the top lane in the front row, much to Bowman’s delight.

“I just felt like when he took over I was a lot more confident,” Bowman said after his seventh career Cup win. “The bottom was where I wanted to be. This is where my car performed best. I thought it gave me my best shot.

Equally important was who took which second-row spot. Byron picked the top spot, which led Busch to take the inside lane to be bottom.

Chastain, who was the fifth pick, debated with his team which path to select. As they considered what to do, Chastain said on his team radio: “Maybe the answer is where the shorter line of two tires is.”

It was the inside row, so Chastain, who had led 83 laps in the race, chose the inside of row 3.

Busch raced side-by-side with Byron behind Bowman and Larson for over a lap, keeping him stuck at the bottom and unable to take advantage of all four of his tires. By the time he got Byron, Larson and Bowman were battling for the lead on the final lap straight. Chastain passed Busch at the finish line for third place.

While Busch lamented Bowman’s win, Bowman was able to take advantage of situations. Consider what Bowman did last year:

Busch witnessed Bowman’s late-race magic again on Sunday. What he also saw were teammates running hard but clean.

Last week, Larson didn’t see teammate Chase Elliott late and ran up the track, sending Elliott into the wall. Elliott expressed his displeasure on the radio. Car owner Rick Hendrick met virtually with his drivers and crew chiefs to discuss how teammates should compete.

Jeff Gordon, vice president of Hendrick Motorsports, said the message was familiar.

“When I came to Hendrick Motorsports the racing was tough, but don’t destroy your teammates,” Gordon said. “That’s what you do. You want to race your teammates for kills and settle them between you.

“I thought they faced each other cleanly but very aggressive. I spoke to Kyle Larson there at the end, he was really trying to stay off of Alex and maybe even pushed a little too hard and hugged the car. Alex, I was talking to him at Victory Lane, (and he said) ‘I drove over there as hard as I could. I didn’t know if it was going to stick and it did.

“The conversation that Rick had was really more about what happened at the end of this race last week and similar type scenarios and blocking and also working when things like that happen, how do you work on it internally.”

This week, there was no frustration among the Hendrick riders. It was just Busch watching Bowman win again.